How should we read news depicting grave human suffering?

By Alexia-Teodora Matei

When the harrowing tragedies of humanitarian catastrophes clash with the mundanity of reading about them on your instagram feed – in between a cooking tutorial and an ad for luxury travel –  it is imperative we ask ourselves whether or not we should change the practices that govern the way we read news about extreme hardship. 

With the tireless expansion of the availability of media, we have become accustomed to learning about a considerable amount of acute grievances at a concerningly rapid pace. Therefore, even if, objectively, we become more informed, we are also beginning to assimilate catastrophe as the default state of certain parts of the world. There are many reasons why we should want to acquaint ourselves with human suffering in a deeper, more complex way, instead of dismissing it as a mere account of unchangeable truth. Our collective apathy – sedimented by both the media and the capitalist society’s religious promotion of individualism – is not something to be wished for. From a pragmatic point of view, it stifles action that could have otherwise significantly enacted change. And, from a principled point of view, it reinforces a narrative that normalizes disaster, instead of the belief that it is our moral obligation to repel mass harm. With that being said, I would like to turn to some practices that we can incorporate in our news-reading process, all of them meant to foster the human connection on which empathy rests.

First, there is something extraordinary about being aware of the lottery of birth. The western society tirelessly boasts about being meritocratic, therefore it is easy to forget that your safety and opportunities are rooted in a privilege randomly bestowed upon you at birth. The reality is that the primordial reason why you are the one reading the news and not the topic of the news is arbitrariness. Luck. Being aware of it lays the foundations of empathy by planting a very subtle, yet powerful thought: that could have been me. 

We can continue by humanizing the numbers. It is hard to feel compassion towards statistics. Seeing wars, famine and epidemics as abacuses of the ill-fated leaves no room for building human interconnectedness. Resemblance, shared traits and common ideals are the cornerstones of true, honest and sustainable compassion, but they can only surface once you engage in the conscious exercise of attributing personhood to numbers. Once you understand that each unit represents a life – as complex and as valuable as your own – the magnitude of loss changes completely. Now, you see that loss is not just about physical death, but about the death of all the things life can accomplish: progress, change, happiness. Humanitarian catastrophes are not just countable instances of momentary pain, but traumatic events that cripple generations.

Still, it is important we keep in mind that there is a huge difference between understanding the full extent of a crisis and engulfing its aftermath in despair. While the former is a necessary step, the latter is, by all means, pointless. It is very easy for stories about suffering to be consumed by hopelessness. At a first glance, you would think discouragement arises organically, that it is the natural consequence of reading about appalling, gut-wrenching events. But what if that is not exactly true? What if there is a very high chance we subconsciously embrace – and even seek – hopelessness  because of its guilt-absolving properties? If we portray effort as futile, death as meaningless, and victims as powerless – condemned to suffer an inescapable faith – suddenly, our disengagement with their hardship becomes justified. The position of witness is, in no way, inescapable. If done by enough people, micro-level initiatives – donating to NGOs, spreading knowledge in your community and responsible voting – materialize in charities’ ability to carry out their operations and in the proliferation of governments committed to building a better world. 

Lastly, always make the parallel. If there has ever been a moment in which you thought your country should not welcome refugees; if you thought your government should limit the assistance it is providing to disaster-stricken areas; if you thought that the people (barely) receiving subsistence-ensuring aid should be more grateful, put yourself in their place. Would you still see your government as needlessly merciful as you see it now? 

All in all, it is possible to bridge the empathy gap. To become conscious of suffering instead of simply knowing about it. To gain a different outlook on what can – and what should – be done in cases of humanitarian crises. By changing the way we grasp information, we are slowly receiving a new outlook on life, dictated by hope and incentives for change, and not by indifference and complacency. 

Image: Алесь Усцінаў on Pexels